Reflections

On Memorialization in America

Posted on: March 26th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 2 Comments

 

They can be found in urban spaces, in rural places, spread across battlefields, and in neighborhood parks. Sometimes they're found in nature, and sometimes on roadsides, memorializing and recognizing the past.

But what makes a memorial tick? Some memorials are familiar, hewn of stone with great marble columns astride stunning life-like figures. Others are abstract, representational, evoking a feeling for a moment in time and space.


A statue of Abraham Lincoln in New York's Union Square. (Photo: 14eleven on Flickr)

Last week the commission in charge of a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower adjacent the National Mall came together to look at the latest design by architect Frank Gehry. Washington Post cultural critic Philip Kennicott describes some of the opposition to the current design, and asked some important questions about memorialization in America.

Paramount is his question: When is it too soon to memorialize someone? Can we really produce a testament to a 'great man or woman' without perspective? And who gets to make that decision?


The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. (Photo: Christopher Chan on Flickr)

As I read the article I found myself reliving my high school history classes where we often traveled to monuments to ask: Are all monuments and memorials created equal? Is meaning inherent in the topic being memorialized, or created by a complex set of factors determined by how we see the past? ... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television

Posted on: March 9th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 7 Comments

 

I think by now many of the regular readers on this blog know three things about me. I love history. I love writing about history. And I pretty much think about history, and place, and the past about 367 million times a day.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that I think about the power of place and the past when doing the most mundane things -- walking, cooking, and watching television.


The cast of Downton Abbey with the real star in the background. (Photo: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE)

Like many, many people, I've been enamored with the British period drama Downton Abbey, which just finished its second season run on PBS. For those that haven't seen it, it begins in pre-World War I England and gives viewers a glimpse into the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants through the intervening years.


Matthew and Lady Mary Crawley, the subjects of one of the great Downton love stories, inside the house. (Photo: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE)

What I love about Downton Abbey is that the story centers around the estate, a magnificent house full of both grand (for the lords and ladies) and humble (for the staff) public and private spaces that serves as a mechanism for how a family and their employees lived in the early 20th century. The way the building is used over the two seasons reflects society and class as changes in women's roles, war, and disease take its toll. But Downton is used as more than a set piece. The home is a crucial character in itself, and plays a crucial role for how each of the characters defines themselves.... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

An Unexpected Find Along a Well-Worn Route

Posted on: February 24th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 4 Comments

 

Yesterday morning I walked to the office along a well-worn route. It's a route I've taken many times before, each building and curb and patio duly noted a hundred times before. When I lived further away, this was the path I would take when I stayed with a friend in the city, but since moving closer in, it’s been less frequently trod.


The grand and very well-preserved Heurich House. (Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

One of the reasons I chose this particular path (aside from distance and directness) was that it ends near the Heurich House, a Victorian home once owned by Christian Heurich, a Washington, DC, brew master. The interior is opulent, boasting a variety of technological marvels, and there is a gated garden in the back that is open for visitors on beautiful spring days. On this particular day, I had just enough time to smile at the building before barreling past.

It was then that I was struck speechless by a sudden jolt of creative happiness, because sometime in the last six months a commissioned mural had gone up across the street.

The colors are vivid, with bright emotion pulling passersby out of whatever day dream in which they're absorbed.  You stop, stare. Shift your position to pull you closer to the fence, and stare again.


Peeking through to the mural. (Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

It’s a relatively simple tableau - a toy theater set with a view of two of the first mansions built in the surrounding historic district. Commissioned by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and designed and painted by Peter Waddell and a group of aspiring artists, the mural is an unexpected burst of joy.

Seeing this, however, made me think: What else do I not see amidst the familiar, the well worn, and the everyday?  What exactly is it about the built environment that gives me (and I know others feel the same way) that rush of euphoria much like seeing the sun after days of rain?


The full Toy Theatre mural, in all it's vibrant glory. (Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Over the long weekend my sisters and I talked about place and happiness - about how much where we live and the particular spaces we inhabit affect our moods and contentment. Since we were in New York City, we discussed how for some people the city spurs on creativity and provides excitement, while for others it is often filled with loneliness and a lifestyle that is so fast it’s hard to catch your breath.

We talked about Frank Lloyd Wright and his use of using space to push where we lived out into nature, to have his homes be more organic, or as is the case with Taliesin West, mimic the flow of music - each detail meant to connect, to settle, and to allow us to thrive.

Place is just as important as the people you're with or the job you work in. So next time you’re walking along your well worn route, look to the left instead of the right or look up when you usually stare at the ground. Step over to another side of the street for a new perspective. You might just see something to remind you why this place, this city, this town is a part of your heart.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

The Byway to Gettysburg: A Vista that Inspires

Posted on: February 9th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 1 Comment

 

My earliest historical memories as a child involve a road trip up to Gettysburg National Military Park. At the time it felt like an epic journey (field trips rule!) with a group of friends. I must have been in elementary school at the time because my impressions of that first trip are mostly of being somewhere away from school, and not much about the battlefield itself.


The battlefield. (Photo: fauxto_digit on Flickr)

Fast forward a few years later. I was a senior in high school and we were back over the Maryland border in Pennsylvania. What’s different about this time is context. We had spent weeks talking about the battle and its role in the Civil War. We watched Gettysburg, read The Killer Angels to see how the battle was interpreted, and recognized the love for a fictional Buster Kilraine. I knew more about what I was looking at, and where I was standing. Together the group - like many before us - reenacted Pickett’s Charge, posed in Devil’s Den like a Matthew Brady photograph, and tried to charge up Little Round Top - getting a clearer idea for tactics. It was a great trip. Public history at its finest.


The hills and woods of Gettysburg are covered in boulders. (Photo: macwagen on Flickr)

Although I've been to Gettysburg a few times since then, a day trip this past weekend made me think about the journey in a different way.  For those of you not from this city, Gettysburg is about an hour and forty-five minutes from Washington, DC. It’s a straight shot up Interstate 270 and Route 15 just over the Maryland border into Pennsylvania.  It is a beautiful drive with the Blue Ridge Mountains rising past you into a brilliant blue sky (in my case this was a surprisingly clear sky following a gentle snowfall).  It is also a drive that includes the Catoctin Mountain Maryland Scenic Byway.


Scenic byway through Gettysburg. (Photo: fauxto_digit on Flickr)

I think the best definition of what a byway is from the New York Department of Transportation website which states “A scenic byway is a road, but not just a road. It's a road with a story to tell.” These roads push travelers off the beaten path and links together history, transportation and culture. In the case of the Catoctin Mountain Scenic Byway, you learn about the soldiers who marched to Gettysburg, Maryland’s Native American history, and Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American born saint.

Above all else, what pulled me in and made me grateful for the opportunity was how the byway linked the natural beauty of our country with our past, providing me with a vista that inspires.

The National Scenic Byways Program is just one of many preservation programs threatened in the new American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act (HR 7). Learn more about the bill and its effect on historic preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

I Brake for Brown Highway Signs (And Other Road Trip Thoughts)

Posted on: February 3rd, 2012 by David Garber 1 Comment

 

Although I formally count train travel as my favorite mode of long-distance transportation (something about gliding through countryside and cities, admiring the backs of buildings and never getting stuck in traffic), my far more prevalent travel mode is the road trip.

No boarding calls to miss. No need for real luggage (a laundry basket or bundle of reusable grocery bags will do). The chance to split travel costs with friends. Frantic fast food roulette (will the next exit have better options??). That backseat jumble of pillows, outstretched legs, and stray french fries. Beef jerky. Nighttime belting of 80s and 90s classics as a caffeine substitute during exit-less and therefore often creepy and winding stretches. And the total (read: schedule-dependent) freedom to detour and explore.


Something about these brown signs always draws me in. (Photo: Jun Belen)

The beauty of road trips is that they aren't just about the destination. Those stops at seedy, half-lit gas stations tend to make up roughly/statistically 50 percent of the stories and memories of the trip itself. Or so it seems.

And if I'm in the driver's seat (with no apologies to history-hating and/or sleeping passengers), some exploration is hard to escape.  I'm a sucker for brown highway signs - you know, the ones advertising so-and-so's birthplace and this-or-that historic district, for ramshackle and seemingly abandoned buildings (keyword: seemingly; see: Memorial Day 2011 road trip to the beach with pit stop at awesomely-ruined-looking house that, upon further inspection, appeared to be an active meth lab), and any food or pitstop option that has more of an air of local-ness about it than just another Chick-fil-A (*ducks*).


Gotta stop for the local (and good for you, too!) stuff. (Photo: Flickr user futurowoman)

A few weeks ago I took such a trip down to Lowgap, North Carolina with a car-full of friends. If you've ever been, you'll remember it as the place with more farm fields and random highway-side patches of English Boxwoods than, anecdotally and without any real information, anywhere else in the country. At one point during the trip we found ourselves on a riverside road in Lexington, Virginia, in search of a gas station - one of those "gas arrow is already below E" moments where everyone's got their eyes peeled.

We were rolling along when all of a sudden we whooshed past (then quickly circled back for a better look) a little silver-colored building shaped like a coffee pot - which turned out to be an actual quasi-historic roadside attraction that we had absolutely no intention of seeing... but saw. And googled. And now love.


The abandoned ones. They beckon me. (Photo: Flickr user kristina k. dymond)

Sometimes it feels like historic preservation is this very formal and staid task. And, sometimes, it is. We talk about it as a responsibility, which it certainly is. But our interest and engagement with old and historic places can be as casual as slowing down to admire a building shaped like a pot. Or running screaming from a creepy old house. Or easing the gas pedal while passing through an old main street. Our appreciation and interaction with these places, whether accidental, intentional, planned, or spontaneous, is one of the most crucial elements of their eventual memory and sustainability.

I think I'll probably keep braking for brown highway signs. And sneaking up to scary houses for a closer look. And detouring and exploring and finding and remembering. Join me?

David Garber is the blog editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Although he tends to prefer a more mellow playlist, he can say only somewhat ashamedly that, thanks to his latest female-heavy road trip, he now knows most of the lyrics to Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back to Me Now." At final edit, it appears the song will be stuck in his head for the remainder of the workday.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.